Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gearóid Ó Colmáin on Pornography, European Culture and the Irish Language

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne vor dem Areopag 1861, Hamburger Kunsthalle

I recently read an article on the Irish language weekly Foinse about a new porn film being made in the Irish language. The idea of sex in Irish seems quite exotic at first. Instead of” yes, yes, yes”, one would have “sea, sea, sea, “and so on. One could imagine many other translations of sexual performance clichés that might appeal to one’s restless perversions but what exactly is the point of pornography? To be sure, if one were not certain as to what really happens when two people take off all their clothes and go to bed together, porn films might have some educational value. Of course, you would have to point out to those you were instructing that most people don’t have bodies that look like they were carved out of marble and that it is important to wear condoms, unlike the idiots in the porn film.

The problem with pornography is that it is just so profoundly boring and utterly pointless. I am reminded of the famous essay by the French theorist Roland Barthes, who wrote about the way in which the act of a strip-tease is a process of de-sexualisation. The more we see the less our expectation. The performance of taking off one’s clothes destroys its intimacy and instead we are left with an image devoid of content.

Modern European culture is saturated with sex. The joy of looking and breaking taboos is paradigmatic of the Western mind in general; we want to see and experience everything, and the egotistical ideology that subtends capitalist societies encourages this. The history of western art is replete with nudity, and, unlike the Moslems, we take great joy in seeing the naked, bruised body of our mythological saviour- figure. The problem, however, is that pornography’s logic is the logic of transgression and this transgression can continue ad infinitum, leading in some cases to violence and pedophilic abuse. How we control pornography is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing western societies in this century. It also raises troubling questions about the validity of the nuclear family as a basic unit of society. Is the monogamous family with the father as its head the only valid way to construct society? Is pornography a symptom of our anxiety about this?

In capitalist society sex has become an enormous industry; it drives most forms of advertising. However, behind most of this, is the prurient male gaze. Most of the world’s pornography industry is driven by male desire, male voyeurism. This is because capitalist society is predominantly patriarchal in structure. In such a context, women become objects of exchange or facilitators of exchange in the case of advertising. Even in the history of art, one sees this fascination with viewing the female body in its entirety, while the male genital organ is always covered. Even in the sixteenth century paintings of Lucas Cranach we see the vagina of Venus covered with a diaphanous veil, which only serves to focus our attention on what is beneath. But there is no such revelation in his portrait of Adam. The same rules apply to contemporary pornography: it is ok to show all the female body but not that of the male.

One could argue that the sexual impulse, as the primal life-force of the world, dominates the human psyche more than any other force. Even in societies where nudity is taboo, this ban on sexual expression is pursued with frenetic zeal. I remember the first book of the Greek historian Herodotus’s histories where he describes the rise and fall of the ancient Lydian Empire, which was in modern day Turkey. He tells the story of the lineage of King Croesus. The downfall of Croesus and his line occurred due to a sexual trangression by his ancestor Gyges, who was the servant of King Candaules. Candaules tells his servant Gyges that his wife is the fairest in the world and that if he does not believe him, he should sneak a look at her when she is undressing in her boudoir. Gyges, though reluctant at first, agrees but is caught be the wife of King Candaules, who encourages him to kill her husband and elope with her, usurping the regal line. Herodotus tells us that nudity was taboo for the Lydians, whereas the Greeks had little trouble with it. Here we see what is, perhaps, the first schism between the thinking of east and west in our attitudes to sex. We in the west still aspire to the aesthetic dimensions of the male and female nude as conceived by Greek sculptors such as Apelles and Praxiteles. The physical dimensions aspired to by most women and displayed obsessively across the mass media of the West approximate to those of the Greek statue of Venus de Milo in the Louvre in Paris. However, the inheritors of Ancient Lydia, today’s Middle Eastern countries, vehemently reject such corporeal worship. But in mankind’s obsessive uncovering and covering up of the human body, there is the same insuperable force at work, the life-force, the sexual instinct dominating human consciousness.

There is no doubt that the ‘sexyness’ is now an ubiquitous concept in Europe. Everything aspires to the conditions of ‘sexyness’. Even decisions to go to war are said to be on the basis of mendacious ‘sexed-up’ dossiers. For a language to appeal to young people it has to be ‘sexy’. To be sure, TG4 have inspired a whole generation of Gaelgeoirí with a keen interest in meteorology with their voluptuous weather-girls. The sad fact is that many of the men who watch the weather on TG4 can never remember the forecast! But would they appeal to us as much if they appeared completely naked in front of the camera? Probably not as much; there would be nothing left to imagine and we would eventually become bored. That is why the idea of Gaelporn is infinitely more exciting than its realization on screen. However, I could, of course, be wrong about this. We’ll have to wait and see. Coinnigí súil amach!

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